By Tom Woron
Who does not like a good, real life mystery raise your hand. Nobody, I thought so. While there are many good true unsolved mysteries in the world, here is one that continues to intrigue six decades after the fact.
Alcatraz. The very name conjures up a sinister aura of mystery. Alcatraz is an island located in San Francisco Bay off the coast of the city of San Francisco, California.
The island became famous as it was the location of a maximum security United States federal prison that was intended to incarcerate the worst of criminals. The idea of a prison located on an island in San Francisco Bay was to have it be escape-proof and be America’s most secure penitentiary. The waters of the Bay are extremely cold and the currents very strong. The chances of an escaped inmate surviving to reach the mainland were believed to be extremely slim if not impossible. The federal government states that no inmate has ever successfully escaped from the penitentiary on Alcatraz. That is very much disputed to this day.
The Island of Alcatraz was at one time the site of a U.S. Army military prison with construction of the main prison building beginning in 1910. The United States Department of Justice acquired the military prison on Alcatraz in 1933. After some modernization of the buildings, the following year the Federal Bureau of Prisons beefed up security and began using the island penitentiary as a Federal prison to incarcerate the nation’s most troublesome criminals. The prison was a three story cellhouse with four main cell blocks. The individual cells which measured nine feet long, five feet wide and seven feet high were very primitive and lacked privacy. The basic needs of the prisoners were provided for but they received little else. In the building there was also an office for the warden, a visitation room, a library and a barber shop. Six cells at the end of the building were called “the Hole” and it was there that prisoners with behavior issues often received brutal physical punishment. Former inmates described overall inhumane conditions at the penitentiary. It didn’t take long for Alcatraz to gain the reputation as the toughest, most feared prison in the country. Officials of the Federal Bureau of Prisons believed that the Alcatraz prison was truly escape-proof given its high security and its location in San Francisco Bay surrounded by very cold water with dangerous currents. But was it really escape-proof?
It’s been stated that with Alcatraz’s reputation for brutal conditions, once an inmate arrived at the penitentiary his first thoughts were how to get out. The slim possibility of surviving an escape attempt did not prevent 36 inmates from trying. In all the escape attempts, six prisoners were shot and killed during their attempt, two were known to have drowned, twenty-three were recaptured and five are missing and presumed drowned. There was even a three day “Battle of Alcatraz” in May 1946 which claimed the lives of three prisoners and two prison guards. But did any inmates ever escape from Alcatraz and survive to live in freedom never to be found?
Late on the night of June 11,1962 (or possibly in the early hours of June 12) three Alcatraz inmates, Frank Morris along with brothers John Anglin and Clarence Anglin carried out an escape attempt that was months in planning. The three men had created papier-mache heads that resembled themselves and placed them in their beds to make it appear that they were sleeping. The three then slipped through ventilation ducts into an unused utility corridor and then to the outside. Once outside the inmates left Alcatraz in a raft that they had constructed from raincoats and managed to keep concealed from the prison guards. The three men disappeared into oblivion their fates unknown with absolute certainty to this day.
A fourth inmate, Allen West, was supposed to go along but when he ran into difficulty he ended up staying behind. West would subsequently cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in their investigation of the escape.
The dummy heads in the beds of the three escaped inmates fooled the guards enough so that the escape was not discovered until later on the morning of June 12. An extensive search of San Francisco Bay and the lands surrounding Alcatraz Island failed to find the escapees. The FBI took the position that the three inmates almost certainly perished in the frigid waters of the Bay.
Although the FBI believes that the three escaped Alcatraz inmates did not survive their escape attempt, there is no concrete evidence to support this belief. Allen West told the FBI that the escapees planned to steal a car upon getting to the mainland. According to the FBI no cars were stolen in the general area around the time of the escape. Since the escape there have been reported sightings and some tantalizing but inconclusive evidence suggesting that the men did make it to freedom.
In 1967 a man who claimed to have gone to school with Frank Morris reported to the FBI that he encountered him in Maryland. The man provided no details.
In 1962 the Anglin family received a Christmas card that said “to Mother, from John, Merry Christmas.” The mother of the Anglin brothers also received flowers from an unknown sender every Mother’s Day after the escape until her death in 1973. Two very tall and heavily made up women, possibly men in disguise, were said to have shown up at the Anglin’s mother’s funeral. Also when the Anglin’s father died in 1989, Robert Anglin, brother of John and Clarence, reported that two unknown bearded men came to the funeral home, viewed the body, wept and left.
From the mid 1960s through the 70s there were several reported sightings of John and Clarence Anglin in northern Florida and Georgia. In 1989 alleged witnesses phoned the TV show Unsolved Mysteries claiming that photos and sketches of Clarence Anglin and Frank Morris bore resemblance to men they knew of living in Florida.
In 1993 a man named John Leroy Kelly on his deathbed told a nurse that he and a partner picked up the escaped Alcatraz inmates in a boat and took them to the Seattle, Washington area. There, Kelly said, he and his partner killed the escapees in order to take money that the convicts’ families collected for them. Kelly described a location where the escapees were supposedly buried but a subsequent investigation of the site did not find any human remains.
The National Geographic Channel aired a documentary on the Alcatraz escape in 2011 in which it was disclosed that a raft was indeed found on June 12, 1962 on Angel Island near Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft. Furthermore that same day, a blue 1955 Chevrolet was reported stolen in nearby Marin County on the mainland contradicting what the FBI originally said. The stolen car claim was confirmed by articles in local newspapers from the time of the Alcatraz escape. A motorist reported the next day that he was nearly run off the road by three men in a blue Chevrolet.
Also in 2011 a man named Bud Morris, claiming to be Frank Morris’s cousin, claimed to have met with Frank in San Diego shortly after the escape. Bud’s daughter who was a child at the time, remembered being present when her father met with “his friend Frank.”
In 2015 The History Channel ran a documentary in which the Anglin family presented circumstantial evidence supporting the possibility that John and Clarence made it to freedom after their escape from Alcatraz. That evidence included Christmas cards that family members received for a few years after the escape purportedly containing the Anglin brothers’ handwriting. In addition the family members identified a friend named Fred Brizzi, who grew up with the Clarence and John, who supposedly encountered the two brothers in Brazil in 1975. A photograph allegedly taken of Clarence and John in Brazil in 1975 was determined by a forensic expert to very likely show the Anglin brothers. However the men in the photo were wearing sunglasses thus making a definite identification of the two in the photo difficult. The authenticity of the photo itself is questionable.
Before Robert Anglin died in 2010 he told other family members that he had been in contact with Clarence and John from 1963 up until about 1987. The other Anglin family members know of no contacts with John and Clarence after 1987.
Perhaps the most tantalizing bit of evidence supporting the survival of the escapees was a letter that the San Francisco Police Department received in 2013. The letter’s writer claimed to be escaped Alcatraz prisoner John Anglin and stated that he was 83 years old (which John Anglin would have been in 2013) and that he needed medical treatment for cancer. The writer stated that Frank Morris died in 2008, Clarence Anglin died in 2011, and offered to surrender himself to authorities in exchange for medical treatment. The existence of the letter was not acknowledged by the FBI until 2018 and wether or not it was really written by John Anglin was never determined.
Studies of the ocean currents of the Bay and experiments with rafts made of the same materials as the Alcatraz escapees’ makeshift raft, have revealed that it was indeed possible to escape the prison and get to the mainland.
Did the three inmates who escaped from Alcatraz perish in the attempt in June 1962 or did any or all of them make it to freedom where they possibly lived for many years? The FBI’s investigation ended in 1979 however, the U.S Marshals Service considers the case still open with the three escaped inmates still on their wanted list. If alive today Frank Morris would be 97 and the Anglins in their early 90s. Whatever happened to the escaped convicts, the mind of the average person reading about the escape wants to definitely go against the FBIs position that the three perished on June 12th or 13th, 1962 and to believe that the three outsmarted authorities, got away, and are living or lived out their lives in freedom The escape from Alcatraz in June 1962 continues to be an enduring mystery with the absolute truth ever so elusive.